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Trying to get back to normal

by Tom Johnson on Jun 2, 2021 •
categories: technical-writing

As the pandemic winds down in the US, I've been trying to get back to normal. I've been especially motivated to find this normal because I made both a job transition and a home relocation during the pandemic, so I don't have the context of what normal even looks and feels like. I can't "return to my workplace" because I'd never seen my new workplace. I don't dread the commute because I'd never made the commute (from my new home). Since moving to Renton, which is 30 minutes below Seattle, my experience has mostly been within the walls of our home and the green woods here. So for the past couple of weeks, I've set about experimenting with several ways to return to normal. In doing so, I've been surprised by how much I've forgotten.

Returning to the workplace

My first step in returning to normal was to get acquainted with my new workplace (as much as possible given current limitations). Google has a strong reputation for a fun, creative workplace, and I wanted to get a sense of it. Most employees don’t have to return until September, but some offices are open in a limited way, with desk stations that you can book. For the past week or more, I went into the office every day.

Working from the office (downtown Seattle in South Lake Union), I found it much quieter and easier to focus. The workplace chair was extremely comfortable. But without colleagues present, overall it was similar to going into a library — you get a nice desk and focus time, and even though others are nearby, it’s sort of like being alone in a [small] crowd. We’re all still wearing masks, following physical distancing protocols, etc., and most of the fun areas and cafeterias are closed down (except for one cafeteria), so being at work isn’t that exciting yet.

I did feel guilty “abandoning” my family during the day. My wife felt like she was doing double duty with me being gone, so I started only going into work half days. But for the half day when I was working from home, my kids didn’t miss me much or even notice I’d been gone. I noticed their absence more than they noticed mine.

Overall, I did find that I could focus better while at work. Some time ago, I described my technique of focus sessions. At work, it was noticeably easier to get through my goal of four writing focus sessions a day. Workplaces are optimized for productivity, with everything from optimal temperature to ergonomic desks, lighting, snacks, and other amenities.

However, even when I’m at my peak productivity at work, I need breaks every now and then. Without colleagues to chat with, places to explore, or other means of distraction, the long workday gets a bit tiring. There just isn’t much to do when I want a break. I found myself wandering around the office supply area, alone, munching on a bag of chips, occasionally looking out the window at the traffic below.

Playing basketball

My second attempt to return to normal was to start playing basketball again. Before the pandemic, this was my main exercise activity, and I used to play several times a week. Amazon had access to a gym where lots of people in the surrounding business park would play after work, and it was fun. There were also lunch leagues that provided a perfect break to the work day.

I’d been looking around for places to play (near a Google office) in Seattle. For outdoor courts, the premier location is Green Lake Park. Competition level there can be high (i.e., guys dunking the ball), with a lot of people looking to play (which means lots of standing around trying to get on next).

Fortunately, I found a place called Puget Sound Basketball League (PSBL) that actually offers “Hoops on Demand,” which is similar to pickup ball but more structured, with sign-ups and a scoreboard, and a competition level more my speed. PSBL isn’t free — in fact, it costs around $17 for a one-hour game at lunch — but so far it’s working well. PSBL offers both early morning hoops (6:30 am), lunchtime hoops, and weekend hoops — all “on-demand” just like pickup ball. Because you sign up to play, you don’t have to wait to get into a game, nor do you have to worry about getting kicked off by a winning team and sitting around for an hour before you can get back in (so it’s more efficient). Plus it’s on a wooden floor, so it’s easier on my joints.

PSBL also offers leagues, but my experience with league ball has never been good. Teams are usually mismatched, so you either get blown out or you blow out the other team. Referees who miss calls make the experience more frustrating (people are simply more honest when calling their own fouls). And league game times are often in the evenings when I prefer to be with my family. So league ball rarely works for me.

I was pleased to find this organized pickup ball scene so close to my work (~ 3 miles). I experimented with early “hoops on demand” at morning, lunchtime, and weekend times and found the competition level (like college intramurals/rec play) just right. However, I’m still trying to get back to my normal here. The first time I played, I was so sore afterward, my whole body ached like it was 90 years old. Tendonitis also flared up in my ankle. I took it easier over a few days and tried to ramp up a little more gradually.

I continued to play, mostly in the early mornings. I thought I would snap back into form, but so far I’ve always been super winded and sluggish on the court, and my shot has been off. I started wondering if I somehow misremembered being better than I actually was. I didn’t know if I was simply getting older and so my age was showing, or if I played against lower competition levels in California, or if it was because I was playing with new people who didn’t know me, or if it was just going to take a while to get back on track. (I’m hoping it’s the last reason.) At any rate, all the walking and biking I did for the past year seemed to have very little effect on getting me in shape for sports. Even exercising two hours a day for the past two months seemed to do little for me. But so far, my calf hasn’t given out on me yet, which was my main worry.

After one of the games, I chatted with another player who said he’d been playing for a month and a half. He was surprised at how long it has taken him to get back in shape; he said he still doesn’t feel normal playing. This conversation made me wonder just how far I’d drifted away from my previous state. Not just basketball, but drifting away in everything.

For example, another time after a game, I chatted with another guy about random things (e.g., NBA playoffs, where one works, other courts). I found myself getting tongue-tied, I forgot my favorite player’s name, and overall I lacked the ability to easily engage in conversation. Like my rusty basketball game, my social skills and articulation had also drifted into a more decrepit state.

Overall, I plan to primarily play early morning hoops (which start at 6:30 am). My sleep rhythm is already broken for reasons I can’t understand. I wake up early (5 am at the latest) and usually can’t get back to sleep, so I might as well make use of the time. One consequence of getting older, I assume, is that the days where I could sleep in past 8 or 9 am are gone. My brain just wakes up early, despite my body’s objections.

Commuting

Another activity I’m doing to get back to normal is commuting. There are about a dozen ways to commute from Renton to Seattle, and I wanted to figure out what would work best. Some commute options include the following:

  • Drive up to a Bellevue park-n-ride, then bike over across the 520 trail and Burke Gilman trail to get to work.
  • Drive to the Kent station and take the Sounder into King Street Station, then walk or take a bus for the last leg to work.
  • Get an ebike and bike to Renton Transit Center, take the Link Light Rail up to King Street station, then bike the last leg.

And so on. I have a Google doc with all kinds of calculations about different times, paths, possible segment hops, and modes of transportation. I have spent countless hours trying to work out in my mind the best commute (given that Seattle traffic is supposed to be horrendous).

I found that nothing is quite so eye-opening as trying the commute out in real life, and what I discovered is that it’s easiest to just drive directly up I-5 into downtown Seattle, especially if I leave before 6 am (coinciding with the early morning hoops). If I leave before 6 am, the drive is about 30 minutes. If I leave at 8 am, the drive is about 50 minutes or more. (With no traffic at all, the drive is just 25 minutes.)

Many people are still working from home, so I’m not sure if Seattle traffic will get a lot more congested as more people return to work, but I hope not. I’m banking on the fact that waking up early and participating in early morning hoops will be the secret key to getting past congested Seattle traffic — at least in the morning. If I can just discipline myself to go to bed by 10 pm, I’ll be fine. Very little of what I do after 10 pm is productive, so this seems like a win-win situation.

However, the commute home is more problematic. Even leaving at 2 or 3 pm, traffic is already congested, and it takes about 50 minutes to get home in stop-and-go traffic. I haven’t found a solution for that because if I drive my own car in the morning, I must also drive it home in the evening.

Also, I also bought a second car for the commute. Although I’m documenting map tech for cars and really wanted an electric vehicle (EV), I didn’t want to pay that much for a commuter car. (EVs are the future of cars, and I wanted to buy a Chevy Bolt, but I didn’t want to pay $30k; plus now they are randomly catching fire.) So I bought a 2013 Honda Accord instead, and it works great. This is one of Honda Accord’s best years. It’s nice having two cars for a change (our other car is a Honda Odyssey minivan). We haven’t had two cars for nearly a decade.

Getting the kids out for the summer

Another thing I’m doing to get back to normal is to get the kids out of the house for the summer. They’ve been troopers with remote learning, but the schedules they’ve fallen into are ridiculous. They go to bed late (between 10-11 pm) and wake up 5 min. before their 9 am classes. They prop up a laptop in bed and join online meetings until around lunchtime.

With summer approaching, we’ve scheduled them into as many Girl Scout camps, sports camps, and other activities as we could find. For example, my youngest is scheduled in four sports camps and a two-week-long Girl Scout camp in Idaho. Others are flying back to California to spend time with friends, attend camps together, and then returning here for other outings. My eldest, home from UC Santa Barbara, is taking classes during summer session and getting a job. Everyone but the youngest (10-years-old) is vaccinated, with my 14-year-old just waiting for the second dose.

Ramping up at work

To get back to normal, I’m also ramping up at work. It takes a long time to become proficient as a tech writer at a company. Honestly, it takes about a year or more. Learning the tools, the way a company works, building relationships with people, becoming familiar with the existing documentation, the product and domain space, determining the right technology to learn, and so on and more takes a while. Things are coming more into focus, though.

I’m writing developers docs for OEM partners in the car manufacturing space, related to map data and cars. It’s cool to be in a disruptive space that is undergoing a major evolution. The whole car industry is transitioning to a more connected, software-driven approach. This transition is being accelerated even faster with the switch to electric vehicles. Cars are essentially becoming smartphones on wheels, powered by batteries.

Map data is important not only for driving directions but for advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS) that rely on map data to power some of the features. For example, think about cruise control systems that automatically keep pace with the car ahead, or which slow down around mountain curves and then speed up on straightways, or about a dozen other ADAS features that benefit from more knowledge about the road ahead — map data assists with all of these features and many more.

Also, it’s rewarding to work on a product that I use so much. I almost always use Google Maps to get to various destinations, especially since I’m still learning to get around Renton and Seattle. There are a lot of teams working on different aspects of Google Maps, and the part I play feels incredibly small and insignificant. Even so, I think I joined a good group. I also like working closely with the Android partner engineers — they seem to be rockstars.

To ramp up, I’m developing doc strategies for our partner portal. I’m building relationships with the partner engineers, business development group, and product managers. I’m trying to fill in the gaps where content is missing. And I’m listening to podcasts about car tech like the Daily Drive.

However, more than anything, what I’m trying to do is focus more on content than tools. Google already has rich, mature, awesome tools for documentation. There’s almost no need to do anything but become familiar with the authoring/publishing features and workflows. Also, we don’t need a rocket scientist to develop our documentation strategy. One simply needs to do the leg work of writing needed content, especially telling the larger story and connecting the dots between products. This is something I feel I’m perfectly suited to do. It just takes time.

Conclusion

My main goal this year has been to return to normal. I’m doing this in various ways:

  • Returning to the workplace
  • Playing basketball
  • Commuting
  • Getting the kids out of the house
  • Ramping up at work

During this transition back to normal, I also want to bring any learnings from the pandemic. Unfortunately, I’m not really sure what the pandemic taught me. Not a ton, sadly. I learned that being in tech safeguards your job even with many potential global disasters. In fact, the more disasters there are that drive people online, the more tech thrives. In a future that portends disastrous climate change, more pandemics, or other dystopian scenarios, we might be indoors a lot more, hence more immersed in tech.

And in tech, one can easily work from home. Strangely, even without the daily commute, time doesn’t seem to be endless at home. Unlike many others who long for permanent work-from-home, I look forward to more of a balance that involves working outside the home. (Google’s proposed balance of three days in the office / two at home might be a good balance.) Being at home all day feels a bit unadventurous for me. I like to go out into the world during the day and interact with it. On the other hand, without other colleagues in the office that I interact with, it feels empty and semi-pointless being there, and I miss being near my family. Most people I know prefer to work permanently from home, so we’ll see how everything plays out.

I’ve heard a lot of advice about taking what one learned from the pandemic and using it to enrich life upon re-entry. So it bothers me that I can’t latch onto anything more tangible here about pandemic learnings. The pandemic opened our eyes to the challenges of finding balance between working from home and figuring out a routine, separating family life from work life, and becoming productive without getting burned out. It allowed us to see the larger context of our colleagues (as their families blended in with work). And with everyone working remote, this leveled and democratized the playing field among traditionally in-office and remote workers.

Still, that “aha” moment about some grand insight about life, myself, my family, or something else has yet to materialize for me. Perhaps this will only become apparent in hindsight, after the pandemic period has fully ended. Right now, I just want to return to normal, and to remember everything I seem to have forgotten.

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About Tom Johnson

Tom Johnson

I'm a technical writer based in the Seattle area. In this blog, I write about topics related to technical writing and communication — such as software documentation, API documentation, visual communication, information architecture, writing techniques, plain language, tech comm careers, and more. Check out simplifying complexity and API documentation for some deep dives into these topics. If you're a technical writer and want to keep on top of the latest trends in the field, be sure to subscribe to email updates. You can also learn more about me or contact me.

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